Photo: fizkes/Shutterstock

Coping With Expat Withdrawal

by Heather Carreiro Apr 9, 2010
For one expat woman, coming home proves more difficult than moving abroad.

A little more than a year ago, my husband and I lit some candles in our Lahore apartment and spread out a world map. This was not some quirky romantic game; the candles were simply to keep the room lit during the power cut we were expecting in the next five minutes.

I took out a month’s worth of obsessive research: files detailing cost of living in different countries, reviews of international schools, salary profiles and statistics on languages and people groups.

With the 120-degree weather in the Pakistani Punjab and the frequent electricity cuts, we were ready to move on. It’s difficult to be an effective teacher when your alter ego is a sleepless zombie woman constantly drenched in a pool of sweat and passed out on the marble floor.

“How about Jakarta? There’s a great school there and tons of opportunities to travel.”

“Too humid. Let’s go somewhere without mosquitoes…somewhere cold. My vote is for Norway,” he countered.

“Norway? Too cold for me, not enough sunlight and high cost of living…how about Saudi? Some sweet packages for teachers there.”

“As long as there’s electricity and AC, I’m down with that. I mean it’s desert heat there – dry heat.”

“Yeah, but you’d have to drive me everywhere. That might make us both crazy.”

Working off a list of job opportunities we were pursuing, we each took colored pieces of paper and marked our top ten destinations on the map. We both chose a small city in Takijistan as our number one choice, and dots of red and yellow marked other destinations across Central Asia and the Middle East .

Six months later, we arrived in new temporary home: Fall River, Massachusetts.

This destination had not been on our list.

After attending a job fair in Bangkok and learning more about the international teaching scene, we realized that to move forward with our careers we needed to further our education. This meant putting our top ten on hold and leaving behind the expat lifestyle for the frugal existence of U.S. college students.

Although I was fully behind this decision, I still had trouble coming to grips with it. Coming back to the states after three years in Pakistan threw me into a tailspin of identity crisis. To friends in the U.S. or people I met abroad, I was “Heather in Pakistan.” To Pakistanis I was the American, the linguist, the teacher, the university lecturer.

Americans often thought I was insane for living in Pakistan; Pakistanis were equally perplexed. My identity was wrapped up in my otherness, in being different.

I’ve realized that who I am doesn’t need to be tied up with place.

I missed designing shalwar kameez with the tailor, dodging donkey carts and ogling over the amount of oil my landlady would put in a single dish. For about six months after I came back to the US, my blog lay fallow and dormant, as if it needed to regenerate after three years of continual use.

So often people form identities on place and occupation. Two of the first phrases learned when studying a foreign language are, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”

As an expat, the answers to these two questions are often unfixed. Outward identity is malleable, although those with long careers abroad can define themselves in a way that captures this flux: international teachers, journalists, missionaries, foreign diplomats, humanitarian aid workers.

Moving back to the U.S., I lost both place and occupation. My blog stayed empty because I didn’t know what to write about. I held on to about 800 business cards with my Pakistani phone number and “Heather Michelle Carreiro: Linguist & Teacher Trainer” on them, even though I didn’t have use for them anymore.

After one semester of grad school, I’ve started using those old business cards for reminder notes and bookmarks. I’ve moved on from lamenting the loss of my Pakistani identity; I’ve realized that who I am doesn’t need to be tied up with place.

I want to explore my new hometown as if I’m an expat – find the best coffee shops, photograph local festivals and be in the know about art and music venues. While Tajikistan is no longer on my immediate travel hit list, I’ve come up with a dozen destinations to visit in New England.

Now that I have some distance (and 24-hour electricity), I can creatively reflect on my time abroad. I can share about Pakistan with others whose only picture of the country consists of turbaned Taliban militants weighed down with artillery, bouncing over washed out roads in pick-up trucks. I can serve as a sort of cultural ambassador, helping bridge the gap between perception and reality.

Yes, my experiences abroad are part of who I am, but so is eating cow’s tongue with my in-laws in Fall River. I’m okay now with planning trips that don’t involve crossing oceans, mountain ranges and international borders.

I’m okay now with introducing myself as a student and a writer, although I confess I find solace that in a few years it will be time to change my address, phone number and business cards once again. I find contentment in the avoidance of putting down roots, having a bag packed and ready to go in my apartment, and always carrying a flashlight in case the power goes out.

Read more about What Happens When We’re Not Traveling from Matador community member Robyn Crispe.

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